The one thing that the new year is guaranteed to bring with it is a lot of people making promises to change some aspect of their life. Visit any gym in January and you will find it heaving with sweaty folks in brand new gear working their bodies. Unfortunately, as with many things, the good intentions slip away and by February, the gym is back to being populated by ‘dedicated keep fit types’ and their ilk. Life gets in the way of good intentions and a good demonstration of this is to be found in Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters which is the first presentation of Phil Willmott’s 2017 residency at the Union Theatre.
The play starts with a birthday party for Irina Sergeyevna (Molly Crookes) the youngest of the three Prozorova sisters. As you would expect on such an auspicious occasion, Irina has her family and friends around her. Chief among them are her sisters Olga Sergeyevna Prozorova (Celine Abrahams) and Maria (Masha) Sergeyevna Kulygina (Ivy Corbin) – married to local schoolteacher Fyodor Ilyich (Steven Rodgers) – and their brother, the academically brilliant Andrei Sergeyevich Prozorov (Benjamin Chandler) – who is in love with local girl Natalia (Natasha) Ivanovna (Francesca Burgoyne). The family was originally brought up in Moscow and vow to return soon to that city which has become in their minds almost a Shangri-La type paradise. However, for now, they are in a provincial town and, as a family of a certain class, their main company is composed of officers of the local army battery – most of whom seem to be in love with Irina. In the lead for her affections is Baron Nikolai Lvovich Tuzenbach (Tom Malmed) but his place in her heart is keenly fought for by his closest friend Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony (Hugo Nicholson). Also in attendance on the lovely young lady are Sub-Lieutenant Aleksej Petrovich Fedotik (Jonathan James) and Vladimir Karlovich Rode (Will Henry) but, to be honest, as far as Irina is concerned, they are very low on the pecking order of her affections. Finally, the house party is made up of sixty-year-old army doctor Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin (J. P. Turner) and the family’s beloved old nurse Anfisa (Corinna Marlow). As the family celebrate they are joined by the new commander of the battery Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Ignatyevich Vershinin (Ashley Russell). The Colonel is welcomed to the party and as the festivities gain momentum, there is talk of marriage in the air. Over the course of the next three years or so, the various members of the family and their friends go on with their lives and in the case of the girls in particular, never forgetting their dream to return to the bright lights of Moscow.
One of the problems with reviewing works by renowned writers such as Chekhov is that it is really difficult to criticise the writing. If you do, then you run the risk of being accused of being some sort of philistine who doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to fully understand the master’s work. Still, what is life without some sort of risk? I will proudly say, I really didn’t like the Three Sisters as a piece of written work. The main issue for me was that it seemed to take an awfully long time for not that much to happen. Now maybe this was meant to make the audience feel the same way the sisters did with their lives I don’t know but, for me, it was rather irritating. On the odd occasion something exciting did happen, it took place offstage and everyone spent a long time talking about it. Even allowing for the fact this version was an interpretation by playwright Tracy Letts, I still found it rather plodding and dull. So, call me a theatrical neanderthal if you wish, but that is how I felt about the story.
How about the production itself? Well, Phil Willmott has assembled a really good cast to bring the play to life. Possibly my favourite was Francesca Burgoyne who took Natasha from socially inept country girl to châtelaine of the family house, lording it over everyone she meets, in fine style. I also really warmed to J. P. Turner’s portrayal of Doctor Chebutykin, a fun and lively friend of the family who undergoes a major existential crisis at a time when he is needed most and holds a secret in his heart. A lovely nuanced performance from Turner.
I wasn’t entirely certain about staging the play in the round – there are often problems of sightlines and sound I find – but this worked really well and enabled the cast to use every entrance and exit point that the Union Theatre had to offer, making the whole space part of the large and impressive Prozorova house. I really liked Penn O’Gara’s costumes, particularly the way the army uniforms were kept very simple but effective. Sean Gleason’s and Sebastian Atterbury’s Lighting and sound were good and used appropriately to enhance the story but I would question the amount of smoke that opened the second half. Yes, there was a fire ravaging the town outside but there did seem to be slightly too much of the stuff in the theatre for me.
So, whilst I really didn’t like the story in Three Sisters this is a pretty good representation of it. If you are a fan of Chekhov, then I think you will really enjoy this production. If you aren’t familiar with his work and are in the Southwark Lambeth area, then it’s probably worth giving it a go.
Review by Terry Eastham
In a UK premiere, one of America’s most celebrated contemporary playwrights, Tracy Letts, hones and focuses Chekhov’s depiction of three young Russian women, in a back-water town, whose dreams are eroded by a series of encounters with guests, lovers, family and the proletariat.
It was first performed in 1900 to reflect an increasingly obsolete leisured class, struggling to find a purpose in an age of great social change. At this precise moment in time, when the intelligentsia have become irrelevant at the ballot box it couldn’t feel more pertinent.
Refreshingly, amidst a crowded market of Chekhov adaptations, Tracy Letts, the Tony award-winning actor and Pulitzer prize-winning author of stage and screen hits August:Osage County, Bug, Superior Donuts and Killer Joe, makes no radical changes to the setting, story or characters.
Instead, he brings a directness of motive and linguistic clarity that only a brilliant actor and an undisputed master of contemporary drama can offer.
Olga – Celine Abrahams
Masha – Ivy Corbin
Rode – Will Henry
Solyony – Hugo Nicholson
Chebutykin – J. P. Turner
Natasha – Francesca Burgoyne
Irina – Molly Crookes
Tusenbach – Tom Malmed
Kulygin – Steven Rodgers
Ferapont – Lawrence Werber
Andrey – Benjamin Chandler
Fedotik – Jonathan James
Anfisa – Corinna Marlowe
Vershinin – Ashley Russell
Director – Phil Willmott
Costume Designer – Penn O’Gara
Assistant Director -Nastazja Domaradzka
Production Manager – Toby Burbidge
Casting Director – Adam Braham
Production Photographer -Scott Rylander
IN A NEW VERSION BY Tracy Letts
BASED ON DRAMATURGICAL TRANSLATIONS BYCharlotte Hobson and Dassia Posner
DIRECTED BYPhil Willmott
DATES4th January – 4th February 2017